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Will electric VTOL aircraft replace personal fixed wing flying?

Will electric VTOL aircraft replace personal fixed wing flying?

I have owned a Flight School for over 10 years now. The majority of our students are learning to fly for fun. The majority of recreational flight students have no ambition to turn their passion for flying into a career; they just want to learn for the sheer joy of flying.

The next aviation revolution 

Currently there is a ‘quiet’ revolution going on with electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) technology. There are roughly 80 new start-up companies world-wide, designing, flight testing and trying to certify passenger carrying electric VTOL aircraft.

Some of these companies have had close to a billion dollars of private equity investment. Some of the most promising electric VTOL start-ups include Joby Aviation, Lilium, Kittyhawk, Archer and Beta, and then there are the big aerospace companies such as Airbus, Boeing and Embraer, all working on their own designs.

These companies are focusing on urban transport and are designing and certifying these new types of aircraft for affordable mass passenger travel. These aircraft only have a limited range (usually around 200km), however this satisfies densely urban transport such as city to airport transfers. Compared to current helicopters, the cost is projected to be up to five to ten times more affordable than current helicopter technology with less than half of the noise. This future VTOL market is estimated to be worth around a trillion dollars globally by mid-2035.

The effects on learning to fly

What has not really been discussed, is how this new technology will impact personal flying and in particular, personal fixed-wing flying. While most new startups are focused on the mass transport of passengers, some companies such as Jetson One and Air One are focused on the recreational pilot market. 

Startup company, Air, an Israeli-based start-up, is solely focusing on the personal recreational market with their Air One electric VTOL aircraft. While the full-scale prototype is set to fly later this year, the initial performance projections are impressive, with a one-hour range at around 90 knots with 30 minutes reserve, and it can carry two people. The aircraft has eight electric motors and a ballistic recovery system (BRS chute) for additional safety. The Air One also will have AI (artificial intelligence) self-diagnostic software that will complete the majority of the pre-flight inspections on most of the systems on behalf of the pilot. Projected sale costs are similar to an upper-end of the market Light Sport Aircraft (LSA).

Will students still want to fly fixed wing, VTOL or both?

Will future recreational pilots wish to continue flying fixed-wing aircraft or will they see electric VTOL as a better alternative? There are a few things to consider when trying to guess the answer.

Most recreational pilots fly locally

While most of our students continue on to complete their navigation and passenger endorsements, the majority of pilots who fly for fun are content to fly locally (within 50 nautical miles of the departing aerodrome). Most recreational pilots just want to get up in their local airspace and enjoy the freedom of flying and maybe share it with a friend or family member.

Those students who want to fly longer distances, have usually learned for business-related reasons and end up purchasing their own aircraft to save regularly having to drive long distances.

Learning to land is the hardest part of flying

Most people can be taught the basics of flying a plane, in a small amount of time. Landing however, is what separates the serious students from those who just think it will be cool to have a pilot’s licence.

It appears that piloting these new VTOL aircraft will be substantially easier than flying a fixed-wing aircraft. For instance, the take-off and landing in most of these VTOL aircraft will be computer-assisted. The pilot will not be responsible for basic stability in the hover, as is a helicopter pilot.

While mastering landings in a fixed-wing aircraft is rewarding, and some students love the challenge, I’m sure there are plenty of would-be students who would prefer this was a lot easier.

Runways optional 

The other huge benefit for VTOL is that no runway is required. Theoretically they can take off and land almost anywhere. 

While there are start-up companies working on this issue such as Skyportz, it will be a while before there are mass urban take-off and landing sites available for all VTOL types of flying, not to mention charging stations. The other factor is whether these sites will be available for personal use or only for commercial applications.


Initially, range will be the biggest issue for early VTOL aircraft, the same as for early electric fixed-wing aircraft. I believe that within 10 years there will be hybrid VTOL (vertical take-off with a fixed-wing component, such as the start-up Beta, that can actually take off and land as a fixed-wing aircraft and have a range close to 400km. 

Battery technology is also improving at a rate of about 5 to 7% per year. This means that within 10 years, energy density should double. This is not taking into account any major breakthroughs in battery technology (such as solid-state batteries). 

Picture courtesy of Beta Technologies

VTOL cockpitThe future is exciting 

While it is hard to predict the future, I think the personal VTOL aircraft revolution is still four to eight years away and when it arrives it is going to radically change urban transport and bring helicopter-like charter operations to the masses (rather than just the rich!).

There will still be plenty of individuals who will want to learn to fly in a fixed-wing aircraft. There is something magical about mastering a landing in a fixed-wing aircraft and as all pilots know, you never stop perfecting your landings. However, I think flying a recreational VTOL will also be rewarding in new ways. It is possible that this new technology will open up new opportunities and entice more tech-savvy pilots into the recreational flying space.

I can envision a future where a flight school has both electric fixed-wing aircraft and electric VTOL aircraft. Some pilots will be attracted to one type and some pilots will want to do both. The issue over the next five to eight years will be deciding who will manage the training and regulatory/safety aspect of these recreational VTOL type aircraft. 

While Commercial VTOL will be governed by CASA in Australia, who will take the regulatory lead with recreational VTOL aircraft? For instance in Australia, will it be governed directly by CASA, or by Recreational Aviation Australia, or some new self-administering organisation?

I don’t have the answers, but I think we need to start having the conversation now so we can all have a part in creating our flying (for fun) future. While it’s impossible to predict exactly what the future will hold, there is no doubt that the future of personal flying will be very exciting.

Damien Wills, CEO GoFly Group

[Feature photo courtesy of Air One]

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The twin issues of the pilot shortage 

Cirrus plane

The twin issues of the pilot shortage

Cirrus plane

This article was originally written in February 2020 for the May edition of  ‘Australian Flying’ magazine – well before the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, and its effects on the airline industry.


This article is for all Flight School operators, CASA and government policymakers, airline board members and anyone else who has an interest in innovation and the future of the aviation sector.


I’m going to suggest a change. The main problem with change is that most of us see change as a threat, plus there is a natural bias towards maintaining the status quo when something is already working. Changing is even harder when many individuals and businesses are still making a profit by doing things how they have always been done. 


Presently Australia’s major airlines are experiencing a temporary lull in the hiring of pilots, but it is evident that there will soon be a serious global pilot shortage caused by the increase in low cost travel, the growth of the Asian middle-class and and the retirement of senior airline staff. Boeing for instance has projected that airlines and business aviation will require another 790,000 pilots worldwide by 2037. Added to this is the fact that not so many students are learning to fly as the cost of flight training has been steadily increasing. Also some segments of  the flight training industry have been declining for some time due to increased costs, regulation and, to put it politely, a lack of imagination and innovation.


When  business owners try to improve things for customers and staff, they try to reduce ‘friction points (or ‘pain points’). Flight training presently has many friction points, and I am going to focus on one of the main friction points which, I believe, if eliminated could create a positive trifecta for the airlines, General Aviation flight schools and student pilots. 


Eliminate the need for a twin-engine instrument rating 

For the direct entry route, most airlines currently equire the candidate to have at least 500 hours of multi-engine command instrument time before they can apply. Some airlines have reduced this requirement and only require a multi-engine instrument rating with no multi-engine command hours, however this is more of an exception rather than a rule.


The issue with this scenario is that twin-engine piston charter is in decline. The industry is replacing the ageing twins (such as Piper Chieftains and Barons) with single-engine turbine aircraft or twin-engine turbines and many of these charter routes are being replaced with small turbine RPT airlines. It is becoming harder and harder for self-funded future airline pilots to get a twin-engine charter job to build the twin command hours required for the airlines.


Most of the entry-level hour building jobs for the airlines are now coming from flight schools. Also airlines now prefer direct entry pilots to have an instructor rating as they can be utilised for check and training roles at a later stage. 



The major issue with building twin command time with a flight school is that twin-engine flying only accounts for about 15% (or less) of the overall flying conducted at a typical non-integrated CPL flight school. 


This  means that for a typical flight school doing 100 hours of flying a week, it would take the average instructor three years to get to the point where they could conduct twin engine training and another three to four years to build up the required 500 hours of command that airlines want. 




Contrary to popular belief, twin-engine piston aircraft are no safer than single-engine aircraft. In fact, your chance of a fatality is higher if you suffer an engine failure in a piston twin. Let’s not forget that on takeoff with a twin, you are twice as likely to suffer an engine failure, and in most light twins if you are at max take off weight on takeoff on a less than ideal day, then there is a very real chance you are not going to climb. This is just an additional training risk that flight schools have to carry for their business, instructors and students.



A twin-engine aircraft generally can only be used for twin-engine endorsements and instrument ratings. Due to the high operating cost it is usually not used for any other type of training such as building command hours. This means that at many flight schools twin-engine aircraft are sitting dormant for the majority of the time. There is a cost to the flight school to train and make sure all their flight instructors are current on these twin-engine aircraft. 



It doesn’t matter whether you are buying a second-hand twin or new aircraft, they are all expensive to purchase and maintain. A second-hand Baron can cost $150,000 to $500,000 while a new aircraft can cost upwards of a million dollars. The basic operating costs of a Baron (fuel, maintenance and engine replacement and insurance) is around $450 an hour. This is the minimum cost before the flight school can even think about making a profit. The current cost for a twin-engine endorsement and multi-engine instrument rating is between $20,000 to $30,000 for an Australian student pilot. 



My suggestion is that the direct entry level requirement for airlines should be a CPL with a single-engine instrument rating and ATPL subjects passed. This would then allow schools to have only one or two aircraft types online for flight training. This would have the benefit of reducing costs for the flight school and the student and make available more potential pilots for the future airline pilot shortage.


If the airlines were not hiring at the time the student graduated, they could use the funds that would have been used for a twin-engine rating towards an Instructor rating to make them more employable.


You could hypothetically have a flight school doing ab initio training with a Cessna 172 which could also double as an IFR trainer and then the school only requires one Cessna 182 for CPL training and IFR training. (Personally I believe CPL training should be able to be conducted in a Cessna 172 providing it has a glass cockpit and autopilot. The Federal Aviation Administration in the US has now gone down this path.)


Alternatively, a flight school could potentially operate only a fleet of Cirrus SR 20s for use as both basic training and advanced IFR CPL training (one aircraft type; you don’t get much simpler than that). The benefit is that once you have obtained your single-engine rating, keeping it current would be a lot less expensive than keeping a multi-engine rating current. Currently the cost of a standard CPL with multi-engine instrument rating is around $85,000. With a single-engine IFR integrated into a CPL course, this could be reduced to around $60,000.


For those of you who worry about flying in heavy IMC in a single-engine aircraft, remember that IFR training can be conducted in VFR conditions with the student wearing a hood. You do not have to train in heavy IMC.



The flight school that I own operates a Cirrus SR20 for PPL and CPL training and the avionics are on par with any modern airliner. I believe that learning to conduct instrument training on this platform is going to be as good – or more beneficial – than in a 30 year old analogue piston twin for any future airline pilot. Also any Cessna 172 can be converted to have a modern Glass cockpit with autopilot for IFR training for a lot less cost than purchasing a new or secondhand twin-engine aircraft.



Operating a multi-engine piston aircraft is dramatically different from operating a multi-engine turbine or pure jet; performance and complexity being the big difference. The airline will type certify a newly employed pilot anyway on that particular aircraft. What airlines really want is a direct entry pilot who can fly an accurate instrument approach and who works well within a team and who is obsessed with flying. I would suggest that General Aviation twin piston charter companies follow the airline path and that CASA creates a type rating for every different type of twin-engine piston. So if you want a charter job flying Barons after your CPL, then you get a type rating on a Baron and this upgrades your single engine IFR to multi for that aircraft type.



The argument I hear from many airline and multi-engine pilots is that flying single pilot command twin engine IFR gives the pilot ‘real world’ experience before joining an airline. I don’t doubt that this does increase a pilot’s abilities however I would also suggest that flying single pilot IFR in a piston twin is a lot different than flying multi crew jets for an airline.  Also, a new First Officer in an airline will spend on average two to seven years as a First Officer before gaining a command position. Isn’t the First Officer learning real world experience during this time?




For those of you who don’t like change or think that what I am proposing is ridiculous, then I would point out that this idea is nothing new and is already working. The current MPL or Multi Crew Pilots Licence is used by many airlines in Europe and the Middle East and has been very successful since 2006. 


The MPL course usually involves a student completing around 75 hours of basic and instrument training on a single-engine aircraft such as a Garmin Cessna 172. They complete their CPL and ATPL theory subjects and then progress directly to a type rating on a simulator for that particular jet.


No multi-engine time is required; just a focus on multi crew and advanced systems. If this licensing has been successful for many airlines then does it not stand to reason that the twin-engine rule is possibly redundant for direct entry airline pilots?




I find it slightly amusing that CASA is about to grant approval for electric VTOL passenger carrying aircraft in Melbourne for Uber Elevate and yet many students still have to learn in 30 year old gas-guzzling twin-engine aircraft before they can apply for an airline. There is a huge disconnect between new forms of transport and existing transport and training (having rules that were created around WWII). The reason for this is quite simple: a new industry such as electric on demand VTOL does not have entrenched rules and regulations and an existing bias towards maintaining the status quo. 


Some flying schools who now operate twin trainers and who are making a profit may be angered by this article, however before they judge or make up their minds about whether my suggestions make sense, may I suggest they all ask themselves these important questions:


  • Do you think schools will still be training on old piston twins in 20 years’ time?
  • Will flight schools be able to afford new million dollar twin-engine training aircraft to replace their ageing twins?
  • What is the best solution for the Aviation industry and students in relation to training the next generation of airline pilots? 

Damien Wills

CEO GoFly Group


To read more of Damien’s blogs, click here.